Interview: 'Life's a cake] Enjoy it.' Yours, Irma: American rebel, free spirit, roving reporter, mother: Irma Kurtz has practised in her own life what she's preached as Cosmo's agony aunt

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SHE LIVES alone in a tiny flat in the heart of Soho. She is a happy and fulfilled single mother: self-financing and self-sufficient. She says she hates exercise, yet is a slender size 10 in her loose grey sweater and black leggings. Irma Kurtz is Cosmopolitan's first and only agony aunt; wise, witty and full of common sense. As the magazine's longest- running and most famous contributor - she has been doing the column since 1976 - she, if anyone, should embody that much- admired, much-mocked contemporary figure, the Cosmo girl. Except that she has just turned 59.

She vigorously disclaims any such identification - saying that the popular stereotype of a Cosmo girl bears about as much resemblance to real women as Barbie doll - not that she'd know what Cosmo girls are like these days. She stopped reading the magazine long ago. Her column continues to offer sane, sympathetic, brisk and worldly advice: the sort that girls might once have been given by the Rabbi's wife, the wise woman down the lane, or a trusted aunt or godmother.

In the current issue, a 19-year- old asks if her fiance's impotence is, as he claims, her fault. 'The fiance saps your self-esteem to excuse his own troubling inadequacy,' says Irma, adding crisply: 'Get out.' A 21-year-old worries because her boyfriend is opposed to her plan to travel alone. Irma answers, 'Life's a cake] Enjoy it] . . . If your ambitions are not supported by the man you love, scrap the man.'

These days, Irma also deals with the problem pages for the American and Australian editions of Cosmo. 'I get a thousand (letters) a week from America alone. They arrive by the boxful each month, and I read every single one.' Do young women in all three continents worry about the same things? 'Ninety per cent of the letters are about love, but their attitudes are very different.

'Americans feel entitled to happiness. Nobody else on the planet feels this but Americans, so their letters are angry, written in a prose style that comes straight out of soap operas: 'I want to feel good about myself . . . I need someone to be there for me . . .'. They're also more worried about their physical appearance than women from any other country. They complain about cellulite or too much facial hair. They crave beauty as part of their entitlement to happiness.

'The British letters are more interesting because they have to do with genuine emotional problems, with feelings rather than - oh God, this awful word - relationships. Love is such a good, brave word; relationships is a mean word with a clinical sound.

'Australians have a stiff-upper- lip mentality. It's a macho society, and the women have to be macho too. They stand up and slug it out like kangaroos, and only write when they're in extremis - about incest, rape, betrayal.'

Are the letter-writers recognisable as Cosmo girls?

'What I see are just young women in trouble, though I think they are taken in by the stereotype of the skinny young thing with a wonderful sex-life and all sorts of career possibilities. That's a romance, a fantasy.'

Thirty-five years ago that romantic fantasy, that skinny young thing, was reality in the form of Irma Kurtz herself - footloose and fancy free, newly arrived in Europe from New York - a Cosmo girl long before such a person had been invented.

She was born in New Jersey on Labor Day, 1935. Her father came from a Lower East Side immigrant family, the oldest of nine children. The family lived in three rooms. Her grandfather, the patriarch, came from Vienna; her grandmother from Prague. Her father drove a taxi to pay for his siblings' education before putting himself through dental school. He met Irma's mother when he was 35 and she 23. She was his opposite: a single child born in Indiana to a scholarly family, the only Jews for 100 miles around; the small town they lived in was run by the Ku Klux Klan.

Irma's parents were Communists, which in those days meant they believed in free love, and didn't marry until her mother was pregnant with Irma. 'Because of their political convictions we lived in imitation of poverty; it was very strange. I did my growing up in Greenwich Village, listening to existentialist poets in coffee bars and women with black turtlenecks being Juliette Greco and puffing on marijuana cigarettes. We used to sleep out in Washington Square when we couldn't get home, in perfect safety. Today you'd be mugged in 10 minutes.'

Irma attended Barnard, the women's college attached to Columbia university, and worked as a waitress to earn money for her first trip to Europe. 'America in the mid-Fifties was no place for a rather eccentric, unconventional, leftish young woman, which I was.

'By the time you were in your third year at Barnard you were in trouble if that diamond wasn't glinting on your third finger. It helped to turn me against marriage, a position from which I never deviated. Not that I was gay - lesbianism lacked purpose for me - but I never saw any reason to get married. I guess I was an early feminist. But I adored men, especially Frenchmen.

'Crossing the Atlantic was a rebirth - no exaggeration; an awakening, a spiritual journey - it was romantic] I was 21. Where did an American of my age go? To Paris. Love at first sight.'

Then began what she calls the vagabond years. 'I went to be a sea-cook,' she says, showing me a photograph of a yacht under full sail. 'I lived on a boat for 18 months until we went to Ibiza where I had my first great love affair, with a man from Argentina. I was 26. There was never any question of marriage, though I would have lived with him forever: I felt I'd found my soulmate . . . until it all went agonisingly, painfully wrong.

'By then I was in Paris - god, that's a city to be miserable in. One day I suddenly thought, if I don't get out of here I'll die. I could see a strange, lethargic condition, a terrible laziness, engulfing me, so I came to London. I remember the first time I saw England. It looked so small and grey and damp and mushroomy, I swore I'd never live here. But I wasn't going back to the States in defeat, and London grew on me.

''I had one friend, Lilian Davidson, an angel. She worked for the Central Office of Information and got me a job there writing radio scripts. Then I ran into someone in a pub whom I'd met in Pamplona, at the running of the bulls. He got me a job doing publicity, and one of my first clients was Paul Raymond.

'Paul decided he wanted to be a magazine publisher like Hugh Hefner, so overnight I became merchandising editor for King magazine: the first girlie magazine in Britain.'

King didn't last, but Irma's journalistic career was launched. In the Sixties she joined Nova, a magazine for women that burst with stellar brilliance upon the staid world of ladies' home journalism: 'It was brand new, a theatrical event, and every issue was like an opening night.' Since Nova folded, Irma has been freelance.

That was the career pattern; but she also enjoyed a vigorous and varied love life. With the Pill virtually guaranteeing safe contraception and the whole of swinging London discovering the joy of sex, an independent, good- looking, expatriate American had little to inhibit her.

One of the more curious episodes from that era was her meeting with the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. 'I had been sent to Louisiana to do an article about them and I found this amazingly interesting, plausible and good- looking young man of 33, from whom I discovered that the Klan's real hatred was not blacks but Jews. I had to write a novel about him because I couldn't tell the truth in an article. He never found out that I was Jewish until the book came out. Recently, on a Greyhound bus going through Louisiana, I saw that he was running for the Senate. He lost. His name was David Duke.'

In the book the investigative Jewish journalist has an affair with the Klan leader. Did Irma? 'He was very fanciable. And seducing a man and then murdering him is quite a sexy concept. It's a wonderful feeling of power when you make someone like that weak. I found it interesting.' She sees my face and laughs. 'No, I couldn't and didn't do it in real life - just in the book.'

Returning from a trip to Japan - Kurtz reported from all over the world in the Seventies, including Vietnam - she suddenly realised with blinding certainty that it was time to have a baby.

'I knew and had always known that I'd be good at being a mother. I had a maternal urge and I'd been denying it. I remember thinking, I have to get pregnant and carry the baby to term or I'm in danger of becoming extremely dissipated. Women who are childless tend to go one of two ways - either that, or they become the baby in their own nursery, spoiled and selfish. I thought, my God, I'm 36] I'd better get a move on.

'Within 20 minutes of getting off that plane, I reckon I was pregnant. I had a nice man around at the time, but whatever lover it had been, if he were willing, I'd have had the baby with him. I would not have gone to a sperm bank.

'I loved being pregnant and I'd love to have had more kids, but you can't have everything and I still call my son my luxury item. Until recently, money has always been a problem in my life. I'd have had a second child if it weren't for that.

'Even with one, it wasn't all as easy as pie. I had to leave my glamorous flat in Notting Hill Gate because I felt I had to own my roof. I bought a house in Shepherds Bush for pounds 5,000, and plumbed in the washing machine myself.

'I always knew I'd have to pay for everything myself. Marc's father is a dyed-in-the-wool Bohemian whose idea of heaven is to stand alone in a large space and attack a blank canvas. We tried to live together, but it wasn't successful. The Bohemianism of his life didn't suit me any more. I'd had enough of chaos. Having a baby imposes order.

'When Marc went away to school in 1986, I sold the house and bought this flat. I've been here for eight years, and we both love it. Though when Marc comes home from college it's a bit crowded - he's six foot one.'

She gestures around the little sitting room. It must be like living on a boat. The flat is perfectly orderly, but every scrap of space is used. The street outside teems with people, but here at the back of the building it is eerily quiet. Smoke curls upwards from the ventilator of a Chinese restaurant; weeds grow on a roof opposite. 'I'm thinking of making a garden there,' she says.

They say you take up gardening in middle age, and Irma Kurtz has mirrored the decades of her generation with uncanny fidelity. From existentialist young rebel to American girl discovering Europe, from Sixties free spirit to intrepid Seventies roving reporter, from pioneering single mother and feminist to habitue of contemporary Soho that she is today - like it or not, Irma Kurtz is a marvellous role model for Cosmo girls.

Irma Kurtz's latest book, 'Jinx', is published by Mandarin, pounds 4.99.

(Photograph omitted)